Rorate Caeli

Squaring the circle: the Synod's most likely outcome, barring a miracle.

The Motu Proprio Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus whereby you reformed the procedures for the canonical process on the sacramental validity of marriages gives a valuable indication of the spirit in which we approach this phase of work. Without questioning the sacramental tradition of our Church or her doctrine on the indissolubility of marriage, you invite us to share our pastoral experiences and to better implement the paths of mercy by which the Lord invites those who so wish and who are able to enter a process of conversion with a view to (receiving) pardon.
-  Card. André Vingt-Trois, Address to Pope Francis at the opening of the 2015 Synod of Bishops, October 5, 2015

It appears the Holy Father would be glad if the synod could somehow find a way to square the circle by authorizing communion for the divorced and remarried without violating Church teaching. 
- Russel Shaw, The Struggle for the Synod. (Oct. 1, 2015)


Our friends over at One Peter Five have recently published an article (What We May Expect From the Synod: A Brief Synopsis by Jeffrey Bond) that we particularly recommend to our readers. In this article, Jeffrey Bond summarizes the three possible outcomes of this month's Synod of Bishops:

(1) The Synod will simply reaffirm Catholic doctrine on the family; or 
(2) The Synod will explicitly change Catholic doctrine on the family; or 
(3) The Synod will reaffirm Catholic doctrine but change pastoral practice in such a way as to weaken and undermine doctrine.
The first outcome is highly unlikely. If Pope Francis were not in favor of a significant change with respect to the Church’s stance toward the divorced and remarried (and possibly homosexual unions), then he would have long ago made it perfectly clear that there are definite boundaries that cannot be crossed when it comes to further dialogue about these matters. 
The second outcome is also highly unlikely. The plans of the modernists would then be fully exposed for all to see, and formal schism would soon follow once faithful cardinals, bishops and priests refused communion to those living publicly in the mortal sin of adultery and sodomy. 
The third outcome, about which Cardinal Burke has warned the faithful, is the most likely. Francis will probably follow the example of John Paul II who did not and could not change Church doctrine on the death penalty, yet gutted the teaching by proclaiming that modern times had rendered it virtually unnecessary in practice. Francis will likewise reaffirm the dogma of the indissolubility of marriage while hollowing out its core through some labyrinthine means by which divorced and remarried Catholics can receive communion. The change will be peddled to the faithful as an expression of our Lord’s “mercy” toward sinners. More chaos and confusion will then follow as orthodox Catholics are further divided against each other as they debate the proper response to the new “pastoral” practices, and attempt to reconcile what cannot be reconciled.

We agree that the first outcome is improbable. If the Pope merely wanted a reaffirmation of Catholic doctrine on the family all along, then there would have been no need for two Synods in a row to deal with it. It is also unlikely that he would have appointed the most high-profile dissenters against this doctrine either as delegates to the Synods, or as some of the officers in charge of the Synod process. And why did he give Cardinal Kasper top billing in the February 2014 consistory of Cardinals that proved to be the opening shot for the current debates over the family?

Some of Francis' defenders insist that he merely wants to make Cardinal Kasper and his sympathizers feel that they are "listened to", or even that the Pope's ultimate plan in all of this is to stir up opposition to Kasper among the bishops so that they could refute him and his fellow-travelers once and for all. The first excuse is absurd, considering that Kasper (and Danneels) have been vocal about their opinions on marriage for the last 3 decades; their opinions were never a secret and were known to Churchmen and theology faculties all over the world. The second excuse is even more absurd, because Kasper was already publicly refuted by Pope John Paul II and Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger in the 1994 with the Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church Concerning the Reception of Holy Communion by the Divorced and Remarried Members of the Faithful, which was promulgated precisely to counter then-Bishop Kasper's 1993 pastoral letter in favor of communion for "divorced and remarried" adulterers. No gathering of bishops could ever equal a refutation given by a Pope: one who has been canonized by the current Pontiff, no less! 

The second outcome is highly improbable as well. The Church does not have any authority to change doctrine, much less a mere Synod of Bishops. Kasper and those in his camp (e.g. Maradiaga) are not stupid and they know this. They have clearly said a number of times that they are not after a formal change of doctrine. Those accusing the Synod's critics of fearing that it will formally, explicitly change doctrine are attacking a straw man. This is not our fear at all. We are certain that the doctrine on the indissolubility of marriage will remain on paper, and we know that this is precisely the reason why many in the Church are indifferent to our fears and concerns about this Synod. 

The third outcome is the most probable one -- the theoretical affirmation of doctrine, combined with the formal legalization or official toleration of practice that will severely undermine it. Everything points to this, from the highly problematic theology of the Instrumentum Laboris (which, keep in mind, will guide the Synod's deliberations) to the dominance of the innovators among the prelates overseeing the Synodal process

The Pope's own frequent railings against "legalism", including in his opening homily for the Synod (October 4, 2015), is no help to those who would want to simply defend the current doctrine. This homily reads like a blueprint for what he expects the Synod to accomplish. On one hand the Pope talks about reaffirming the theory, the doctrine: "the sacredness of life, of every life; in defending the unity and indissolubility of the conjugal bond as a sign of God’s grace and of the human person’s ability to love seriously." On the other hand he speaks of the praxis that should henceforth accompany the doctrine: the Church must not "point a finger in judgment", she must search out hurting couples and show them "acceptance and mercy" and "welcome and accompany" them; she must not "close doors" and act as a "bridge" rather than as a "roadblock". 

At first these words might sound wonderful -- but do these not imply that the Church's current discipline is sorely lacking, and is unmerciful and unwelcoming to "hurting" couples? Given the context and the atmosphere in which the Synod is meeting, given this Pope's frequent attacks on "legalism" and his repeated invocations of the God of surprises, the Pope's indications point in only one direction -- retain the doctrine on paper, but change the discipline. Precisely whether this is even possible has been the crux of all the debates over the family that has pitted "bishop against bishop, cardinal against cardinal" in the past 2 years; but the Pope's own stand should be reasonably clear by now. We don't actually have to speculate here because his radical reform of the "annulment process" effectively turning it into a de facto Catholic divorce machine already shows what he is willing to accomplish, as long as doctrine is preserved on paper. (During his in-flight interview last week on the way back to Rome from the Americas, Francis defended his reform by noting that the doctrine of indissolubility remained intact and that he only wanted to address the "never ending" process of appeals. It was a defense that sought refuge in the fact that doctrine was preserved on paper. Intentionally or not he did not actually address any of the arguments advanced by many canonists to the effect that the reforms undermine the doctrine in practice. )

The third outcome is also probable only because of the impoverishment of many Catholics' understanding of "orthodoxy". We have witnessed in the last two years the willingness of Francis' defenders, in general, to overlook the imprecision, ambiguity and equivocal nature of many of his statements and gestures so long as these could somehow be understood in an orthodox manner. A statement is now seen as "orthodox" so long as it pays lip service to doctrinal formulas, or makes a passing nod to doctrine, or is equivocal but can possibly be interpreted in an orthodox sense. The idea that orthodoxy demands something more -- the clear and unambiguous transmission of true teaching -- has been buried by a view that equates "orthodoxy" with "acceptable as long as it is not unambiguously heretical". However, the dominance of this new view of "orthodoxy" did not begin in the pontificate of Francis, but merely received a boost from the need to defend him at all costs. One can argue -- although this is beyond the scope of this post -- that this new understanding of orthodoxy has its roots in the theological crisis after Vatican II, in the attempts of many well-meaning bishops and theologians to completely reconcile the words and actions of the post-Conciliar Popes with the clear teaching of the Church prior to that Council.

With the way the Synod has been stacked and given the trends in the history of the Church since 1962, only a miracle now stands in the way of a major catastrophe. Now more than ever we need to pray and do penance -- for the Synod Fathers, for the Pope, and for the Church.